Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

A Search for Security in a Troubled World (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)

This Shabbat we begin the annual cycle of three special haftarot which precede the fast day of Tisha B’av, the fast day mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The first two of these haftarot come from the opening chapters of the book of Jeremiah, who is known as the prophet of the destruction. In the first of these haftarot, Jeremiah described his initiation as a prophet in these words: “And He said: ‘Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) The prophet implies that God has arranged his mission before his birth, without his being a party to deciding his future role.

In Seder Olam Rabbah, an early rabbinic chronological work seemingly from the period of the Mishnah, the timing of this predetermination is challenged:  “’And He said: ‘Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.’ (Jeremiah 1:5) Could this refer to the time [of his conception]? Scripture says: ‘These are the generations of man.’ (Genesis 5:1) This comes to teach that the Holy One Blessed be He showed Adam, the first person, each generation and its leaders and each generation and its prophets, each generation and its interpreters, each generation and its wise men and its communal leaders, each generation and its judges; the wise men of each generation, the prophets of each generation, the righteous of each generation, He told their names, the number of their days, an accounting of their hours, the sum of their footsteps, as it is written: ‘For now you count my steps’ (Job 14:16) and [it says]: ‘This is a small thing in the eyes of God’ (2 Samuel 7:19) and [it says]: ‘Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed to the very last one of them. How weighty are Your deed to me, God.’ (Psalm 139:16-7) (Seder Olam Rabbah 30, Milikovsky ed. 325-6)

In this vision, God shows Adam the entire scope of history from beginning to end. All is foreseen and known, including Jeremiah’s prophetic mission. So, what is gained by this story? Knowledge of past and future reveals a sense of security and order, important commodities especially in troubled times. This story, built on the prophecy of Jeremiah, the prophet heralding the destruction of the First Temple, and composed during a time of distress after the Second Temple was destroyed, gives structure to those events with the hope that God has not abandoned His subjects even in the worst of times. This also provides a very good reason for why this “utopian” thought was chosen as the finale of the chronological midrash, Seder Olam Rabbah.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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